Cartoonist Gene Luen Yang is having a good year. His most beloved masterpiece, American Born Chinese, which began as a xeroxed and stapled series hand-sold at comics conventions and became the first graphic novel finalist for the National Book Award, is now, seventeen years after its release, debuting as a Disney+ TV show starring Oscar winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan.
American Born Chinese has been a staple of my syllabus in almost every comics class I’ve taught. It’s the graphic novel that teaches the lesson of form: the best comics do things that only comics can do. ABC’s formal innovation, most notably the satirical use of stereotypes to skewer the white American gaze, explores the tensions of assimilation and the paradoxes of identity experienced by so many immigrant groups in America. But true comics obsessives (like me) know that Yang’s oeuvre exceeds ABC, and it’s epically vast: his first books, self-published under the imprint Humble Comics, won him a Xeric Foundation grant in 1997. Prime Baby (2010); Boxers and Saints (2013); Dragon Hoops (2020); the collaborative works The Eternal Smile (2009), Level Up (2011), Secret Coders (2015-18), and others; along with his writing for Avatar: The Last Airbender, Superman, his most recent Books of Clash, and other superhero and adventure comics, all build a legacy that delights in variations on nerdery and everyday heroism. Yang is a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of the Michael L. Printz Award, a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and a many-time Eisner and Harvey Award winner.
Given these accomplishments, it’s hard not to dwell on how humble he remains. Yang, now fifty, taught high school computer science for seventeen years, and he has four children of his own. Born and bred in California, he often cites his OG Bay Area cartoonist community as an essential influence. He lives in the town where his parents—an electrical engineer from Taiwan and a programmer who grew up in Taiwan and Hong Kong—first met, and he’s finishing a rom-com graphic novel, a collaboration with illustrator and writer LeUyen Pham, loosely based on his and his wife’s love story. Yang’s is a rare voice in this century’s literary world: he is a deeply moral storyteller who doesn’t moralize. His work is often radical in its compassion. He refuses to create villains for the sake of others’ heroism.
Between trips to the White House and Radio City Music Hall, Yang spent some time with me over Zoom this past summer. He asked me almost as many questions as I asked him, and when I challenged him to define “the good,” he didn’t even flinch.
I. The Suffering
THE BELIEVER: So you’re having a whirlwind time lately.
GENE LUEN YANG: It’s been really, really weird. A little bit whiplashy.
BLVR: Well, I’m just a straight-up comics nerd, so this will be a very comics-specific conversation.
GLY: OK. My favorite.
BLVR: So I was recently reading Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order—
GLY: Oh my gosh, you went deep. There are, like, five copies of that somewhere!
BLVR: Your postscript in that book struck me. You wrote about the physicality of making comics and the question of whether or not all the labor is worth it. I just finished my second graphic memoir—368 pages, seven years—and it almost killed me, physically. Can you tell me about your relationship to the physical aspect of comics-making?
GLY: My cartoonist friends and I always talk about our crappy cartoonist bodies. It’s a stereotype, but I feel like a lot of us are not physical specimens. [Laughs] And maybe that’s what drew us to comics in the first place. Almost all of us have something that hurts. Usually for me it’s my shoulders and back.
American Born Chinese took me five years to finish. And during those five years, I had no idea how the book was going to turn out, if I was going to actually like it by the end. So there’s just a lot of suffering. There’s suffering on one side, and then there’s an unknown result on the other. I think a lot of us in comics struggle with that.
BLVR: How do you deal with the suffering and uncertainty of this kind of work?
GLY: Technology does help. Like there was this argument about hand-lettering when I was starting in comics in the ’90s.
BLVR: I find that’s actually the most painful part of comics.
GLY: I do think hand-lettering is more beautiful. And you can move your text between words and pictures. Will Eisner does that a lot. But the compromise most of us have made is that we use a font that’s based on our handwriting.
BLVR: Yeah, I have four different fonts.
GLY: I do too. And it’s imperfect. But that’s part of the way I deal with the suffering. The other thing is community. I think cartooning can be very lonely work. But I do have a group of friends who are also cartoonists, and I think my friendship with them is actually one of the big benefits of doing comics. Possibly, like, the best benefit.
BLVR: Do you have text threads going throughout your workday where you’re sharing pictures of your drawings with these friends?
GLY: Yeah. Right now I’m collaborating on a graphic novel called Lunar New Year Love Story with LeUyen Pham. I did the writing and she did the art, although it kind of bleeds. We’re constantly texting each other.
BLVR: You mentioned technology. Can you tell me about your tools? Are there parts of the process that you still like to do by hand?
GLY: The most recent graphic novel that I wrote and drew, Dragon Hoops, was the very first time that I drew completely digitally, and I did it mostly on a Wacom tablet. I didn’t use any paper at all. Before that, for American Born Chinese and for Boxers and Saints and for the comics that only you’ve read—
GLY: —I used actual paper with actual ink.
BLVR: What kind of ink?
GLY: I don’t remember the brand—it’s been so long—but it was India ink. And then I had a sable brush. I think I started with the number four, which was a really bad idea. I got it because it was on sale.
BLVR: Yeah, that’s really thick.
GLY: Too big. I think I was using a number one by the end. I did American Born Chinese like that. And then with Boxers and Saints, I moved to these Japanese brush pens. Pentel makes one that I really like.
BLVR: That’s my pen: the Pentel.
GLY: Wait, so you’re still drawing on paper?
BLVR: Yeah, unfortunately.
GLY: That’s awesome.
BLVR: Is it?
GLY: Do you want to move to digital?
BLVR: Well, it has not come to me naturally, but it does seem faster. How did you make that transition?
GLY: The main thing is you have to resist the temptation to zoom in. Because you can just zoom in forever and fix things on a pixel level.
BLVR: So you’ve given yourself arbitrary constraints?
GLY: Arbitrary constraints. That’s right. But I don’t think I’m necessarily faster digitally. I’m more portable. That’s the most important thing.
BLVR: Because you’re on the road, going to the White House…
GLY: Well, there has been that this past month. But this past month is not my normal life. No, I have to be portable because my wife and I have four kids. And we live in a four-bedroom house. And I used to have an office, but then one of my daughters got too big to share with her sisters. So she got my office room. Now I’m a nomad.
II. Pac-Man and Colonoscopies
BLVR: I’ve noticed that video games are a theme in your work. Right now you’re doing Books of Clash, which is an adaptation of a video game into a comic. And you’ve got Level Up, illustrated by Thien Pham, which also features elements drawn from video games. What do games mean to you?
GLY: I’m not a video game player anymore, but I was when I was a kid. I’m gonna sound like an old person now, but when things went 3-D, I had a hard time transitioning. I would feel carsick. But when stuff was 2-D, I really loved it—like Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros., all of that. When I was in college, my roommates and I were really into NBA Jam and Bomberman. And then things went 3-D and I had a harder time with it.
BLVR: Comics are like 2-D games, right? What is it about more simplistic games that appeals to you?
GLY: 2-D games, like cartoons, are a simplified version of reality. But once you get into 3-D, they’re trying to get to reality, or as close to reality as possible.
BLVR: Have you ever put on the Oculus and gone into VR and all that?
GLY: I’ve tried a little bit. It’s kind of cool. But I’m also freaked out about it.
BLVR: I feel there’s two schools of thought here. One is the people who feel there’s more elegance and artistry in a simplified world—people who are trying to pare things down in order to say something. And then there are people who are trying to really immerse you in a sensory experience. And sometimes in that direction, you’re having so much of a sensory experience that you can’t have a conceptual experience. Something that I really like about your style is that its simplicity allows for it to be especially conceptual.
GLY: That’s a great way of talking about it.
BLVR: Have you read this book called Games: Agency as Art by C. Thi Nguyen?
GLY: No, should I? I’m gonna write it down.
BLVR: He’s a philosopher of games. His thesis is that games are an art form and their medium is agency.
GLY: I think that’s very true. Like in Level Up, we were trying to use games as a way of talking about control. And I think that was the appeal, at least for me when I was a kid. Pac-Man or Donkey Kong was one of the few places where I got to make all the decisions. There’s no parent figure within those worlds that tells you what to do.
BLVR: Do you think there’s a relationship between kids who are into video games and kids who lack control in other places? Were your parents telling you what to do all the time?
GLY: Oh, of course. I think that’s true of a lot of parents in general, but immigrant parents in particular, because they work so hard to establish this life for you. They don’t want you to mess it up. For me, that was more my dad than my mom. My mom was more understanding. My mom, I think, had an artist’s heart. But my dad was very much a stereotypical immigrant dad, at least in what he wanted from me and my brother.
BLVR: What was the family dynamic? Did both you and your brother feel the pressure from your father to, like the Level Up character, become a doctor or something?
GLY: The Level Up character is loosely based on my brother. My brother is a doctor. He’s four years younger than me and he was always better at video games than me. He just had better hand-eye coordination. I remember him telling me all these crazy stories about the stuff he would have to do in med school, like dissecting human cadavers and labeling hemisected human heads. The way video games and medicine connected for me was him telling me that for one of his assignments, he had to do a colonoscopy on somebody. And after that, he decided to be a gastroenterologist. When he was a kid, he was super squeamish. So I was like, “You used to feel like throwing up when you saw dog poop on the street. Why would you want to be a gastroenterologist?” And he said, “Because a colonoscopy is like playing video games up somebody’s ass.”
GLY: I was like, “That’s a graphic novel.”
III. Taking Advantage of the Form
BLVR: The big thing in your life right now is that American Born Chinese has been adapted as a television show, and I’m especially interested in what it’s like for that particular work to traverse mediums. American Born Chinese is one of the most formally innovative comics maybe ever.
GLY: Well, thank you. That’s so nice of you to say.
BLVR: There’s so many comics-specific choices you’re making. How do those choices get adapted, or not, into a form like television? For example, the fact that we never see Jin’s parents’ faces in the book. Are people in TV noticing those choices and saying, OK, we noticed that we never see Jin’s parents’ faces. What does that mean for the story and how we adapt it?
GLY: So the short answer is: the TV show is very different. In my first conversations with Melvin Mar, one of the executive producers on the show, and Kelvin Yu, the showrunner, we emphasized that the story had to take advantage of the medium. When you tell a story, you have to be conscious of the strengths and the weaknesses of the medium you’re using. And because I’m a comics guy, when I do comics I often try to do things that you can only do in comics. I think that’s an ethos that comes from the crew of cartoonists I came up with when I was in my twenties. For that specific thing you mentioned about the parents, the show makes the opposite choice. The parents are actually these big characters in the show. But in the book I think you only see, like, half their faces on one page.
We made two choices very early on. One was to adapt it as a television series instead of a movie, which meant the world had to feel more full. It had to feel open-ended. And two was to move the timeline from the vague ’80s/’90s, when the book was set, which mirrors my own childhood, to now, the 2020s. So lots of stuff has to change because of those two choices. And I actually like that the show is very different from the book, because I’m hoping that the negative space between the show and the book says something.
BLVR: What do you want that negative space to say?
GLY: That the experience of being an Asian American is very different now from when I was growing up. That’s one. And then two is the difference between the mediums. I think going through this experience with Hollywood has just emphasized for me how intimate comics is. Comics is a much, much more intimate medium than television. Television is amazing. And it’s an intensely collaborative medium. But I think there are certain stories and ways of telling stories that you can only do through comics.
BLVR: Are there intimate moments from the book that you do see reflected in the television show?
GLY: One of the central pieces of the book is the friendship between Jin and Wei-Chen, the American-born Chinese kid and the foreign exchange student, and I think that was preserved and maybe even expressed better in the show because of the two actors [Ben Wang and Jimmy Liu]. And you also get more time with them. You can read the graphic novel in, what, forty-five minutes? It took me five years to make, but you can read it in forty-five minutes.
BLVR: Ugh. The worst.
GLY: But that’s fine. [Laughs]
BLVR: Television is real time and the characters are like friends. I think that’s the primary way people relate to television. People get to be companioned by Jin and Wei-Chen. But they’re not becoming Jin and Wei-Chen, which is what it feels like to read American Born Chinese. You become Jin even if you’re, I don’t know, a Jewish girl across the country, fifteen years later.
GLY: Yeah, that’s the Scott McCloud idea. The cartoons are avatars for us.
IV. Lessons in Satire
BLVR: The iconic stereotype in your work is Chin-Kee, the visiting Chinese cousin from the third story line of American Born Chinese. And let me shout out one of the most brilliant formal choices in all of comics: the laugh track that accompanies all Chin-Kee’s scenes in the book. I’ve never had a student encounter Chin-Kee as a stereotype and not understand that it is a stereotype used to defang stereotypes, because of that laugh track. How did that choice occur to you?
GLY: Some of it was inspired by my cousins. My cousins came to the United States when they were older, and the way they learned about American culture was through sitcoms. In the ’80s, sitcoms were the picture of what an ideal family in America should act like. And there were no Asian characters in those shows. So it seemed like if you ever inserted Asian-ness into this quintessentially American setting, that somebody would find it funny.
BLVR: The minority characters are the punch lines to these shows.
GLY: If they exist, they are the punch lines.
BLVR: Did some people not get the nuance of the Chin-Kee character? I know there was some controversy with the character getting taken out of context on the internet. Was that a serious episode in your writing life?
GLY: There were some people who misunderstood, but the vast majority did not. So American Born Chinese began as a mini comic. I would write and draw it, xerox it at Kinko’s, staple it, and then sell it by hand. At the end of the day, I would sell maybe sixteen copies. I knew most of the people who bought it. I would trade it with other cartoonists, you know. So in that context, I didn’t think anybody would misread him. After the book came out in 2006, I’d say I had three major responses to that character. One is that sometimes older Asian Americans would tell me they found Chin-Kee so painful that they had a hard time finishing the book. Which I think is fine. He’s supposed to be painful. A second response I would get is people would find him funny, but they would feel uncomfortable laughing. And I think that’s fine too. Because he’s supposed to be absurd to the point of being funny. And then there was this final response where people would come up to me at, like, a Comic Con—and this was definitely a minority response; I haven’t had this in a long time—but they’d be like, “You know that cousin character—he’s so cute. Do you have a T-shirt with him on it?”
GLY: And that would make me feel very uncomfortable. They completely missed what I was trying to do with that character. But that was definitely the minority. Most people understood what I was trying to do.
BLVR: Did you ever feel pressure to condemn what Chin-Kee skewers in a more didactic way?
GLY: I don’t know if I’d call it pressure. For cousin Chin-Kee, specifically, there is some pushback, especially now. And I get some of where that pushback is coming from. I think I can also trace cousin Chin-Kee back to my high school English class, my senior year, when we did this unit on satire and we read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. We had to write response essays, and I wrote one about being a Chinese American. I remember my teacher reading it in class, and she chose to read it at the very end of the period, so she knew she wouldn’t be able to finish it, and I remember some of my classmates being uncomfortable with it. I also remember thinking that it was a really powerful way of talking about something. That particular lesson on satire is one of the few things I remember from my senior year of high school. My response to some of the pushback that’s happening now is that satire always has the danger of being misunderstood. But if you have a technique that you can’t apply to a minority experience, then you reserve it as a writing tool only for the majority. That seems even more dangerous than satire being misunderstood.
BLVR: Satire does imply that we all believe the same thing, that we all understand what’s true so we can identify what’s untrue. In American Born Chinese, Chin-Kee is an illusion; he’s a manifestation of the white gaze. But if you’re in the white gaze, and you see Chin-Kee as real, you’re not going to get the satire.
GLY: That’s right. In terms of the pressure, I think there’s no question that we have become more sensitive about issues of identity. And I think, on the whole, it’s a good thing. It just means that conversations that used to happen under the surface are now happening above the surface. I do think that writers and creators have to be sensitive to where the conversation is now.
V. Saran Wrap and Other Preservatives
BLVR: In American Born Chinese, in both the show and the book, there’s this Jin–and–Wei-Chen dynamic, a tension between a more recent immigrant and a more assimilated character. Is there a Wei-Chen in your life?
GLY: Oh yeah. There are multiple. My parents, for sure. I remember going to the mall with them and just feeling really embarrassed when they spoke Chinese to me, even though we spoke Chinese at home. At the mall, I’d try to talk to them in English, and they would answer in English, but it’d be accented English, and I’d feel even more embarrassed. This was when I was in late elementary school, early junior high. Then there was the kid who came from Taiwan. I must have been in third or fourth grade, and he was a year younger than me. This is a very shameful memory. The teacher kind of assigned him to me, to be his friend. She thought she was doing both of us a favor. And I just felt so embarrassed. This kid—his English wasn’t very good. He’d follow me around and speak Chinese to me. Finally, at the end of the week, the way I got him to stop following me around was by throwing tanbark at him. I don’t know if you know what tanbark is.
BLVR: No, what is tanbark?
GLY: It’s these wood chips they used to line playgrounds with in the ’80s. Anyway, in junior high, there were two groups of Asian American boys. Me and my crew, we were mostly born in the United States or came when we were very young. And then there were these other kids that came when they were older, like in fifth or sixth grade. And they were very much like Wei-Chen. They would wear these weird shirts with misspelled English words on them. And they would listen to Asian music and speak to each other in their native tongue. We had this weird frenemy relationship. If we were in class together, we’d say hi to them, we would talk to them. But we always wanted to make sure that people knew we were two distinct groups. And behind their backs, we’d call them FOBs, “fresh off the boats,” and make fun of their accents and their clothes.
BLVR: I assume your attitude toward that group has changed. How do you reflect on these memories now?
GLY: My attitude toward them definitely has changed. I feel bad. I feel bad for feeling embarrassed. I think it was just a sign of immaturity. I think it was just wrong.
BLVR: I wonder if you think there was any part of you that was jealous of them and their access to their culture.
GLY: I’ve never considered that question before. Maybe in some contexts. But I don’t think I felt jealous at school. At school, I wanted to avoid them at all costs. But I did also go to Chinese school on the weekends, and maybe in that context I might have been jealous.
BLVR: In my own family, there’s also this kind of FOB dynamic. My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor born in Poland. She has an accent and she does all this embarrassing stuff, acting like a cheap Jew. And we, her family, are the greatest policers of her behavior. But over time, we started to kind of use that embarrassment for humor. Like, we’re going to be the first ones to laugh about, and also celebrate, my grandmother. It’s a coping strategy but also a source of empowerment. I’m curious if there’s a parallel in your family or your culture?
GLY: There’s absolutely a parallel. I think immigrants all tell kind of the same stories, and it’s a way for us to bond with each other. For example, in the American Born Chinese show, most people are not going to notice this, but the television remote control in the very first episode is wrapped in saran wrap, which is totally a very Chinese immigrant thing to do, and then there’s a sponge that’s in a tofu container next to the kitchen sink. I’ve done talks about American Born Chinese where I show these images in my PowerPoint, and I always get a huge reaction, because people just recognize those things. As a kid, you’re embarrassed because you think these things make you different from everybody else. But as an adult, you realize they actually make you the same as a whole bunch of people.
BLVR: With my grandmother, it’s putting sheets and towels all over the furniture. And other families put plastic around their furniture. What do you think is underneath that impulse?
GLY: I think it’s protection. Protection and preservation, which maybe we take for granted as Americans, because things for us are very replaceable. My brother has a little bit of that too. I hope he doesn’t mind me busting him out, but he had this Acura that he kept for seventeen years, and there’s this plastic that protects these metal parts of the car floor, and he never took off the plastic. He gave the car to my dad—my nineteen-year-old son borrows it when he’s home from college—and my brother is proud of the fact that the plastic is still on there. None of us have ever seen it without the plastic.
BLVR: Do you have these tendencies?
GLY: I probably do. But I bet I can’t even see them. Definitely less so than my parents. I think that’s the tension between me and them: my approach to the world is much more American in that I think of things as replaceable.
VI. K-Shaped Progress
BLVR: There’s a lot of anxiety about the moral education of young people in the literary world. Something I love about your work is that it’s not amoral, but it does feature moral complexity. In Superman Smashes the Klan, a character who commits an act of white supremacy is ultimately humanized. The reader understands where he is coming from. Do you ever get pushback against this kind of moral complexity in your work?
GLY: I’ve had some pushback. With Superman Smashes the Klan, it’s that it doesn’t go hard enough. That character, Chuck, the kid that kind of has a change of heart, I didn’t make him up. He’s actually from the original ’40s radio show [that Superman Smashes the Klan is based on]. He has the same arc in the radio show as he does in the book. I think you have to have compassion for all your characters in order to write them properly, even the characters that you disagree with. When I was preparing to write Superman Smashes the Klan, I was actually watching a lot of YouTube videos of—what do they call them?—racial realist apologists.
BLVR: What’s a racial realist apologist?
GLY: It’s somebody who believes that the differences between the races are real and that ultimately a multicultural society is impossible because the races are too different. I was watching this stuff to really try to understand where those characters are coming from. And there’s a danger in that, too, right? Because in the end, I really didn’t want people to go, Oh, you know, the guy in the hood had a point.
GL: My hope is that by the end of the book, the point that Superman and the Lee family make is stronger than the other point. But I also don’t want to straw-man the other point, because I think it takes away the power of the narrative.
BLVR: What did you learn about where those kinds of characters are coming from?
GLY: I mean, living in diverse societies is hard. There are studies, cited in those YouTube videos, about how people in diverse societies tend to not be as happy as people in mono-ethnic states. But the future is multicultural. I just don’t see a way around that. You can’t roll back technology, you can’t roll back the cultural exchange that’s happened. So if you’re future-minded, you have to engage in a multicultural landscape.
BLVR: When you wrote Superman Smashes the Klan, were you thinking about Superman’s creators and their identities?
GLY: Absolutely. I think Superman is a science fiction version of the Jewish American experience. And I think there’s a lot of overlap between the Chinese American and the Jewish American experience. But one of the ways in which they don’t overlap is that for some people in some Jewish communities, there is this choice to pass, right?
BLVR: That’s right.
GLY: And that’s fundamental in Superman: that he can choose to pass when he becomes Clark Kent.
BLVR: Yes. But in Superman Smashes the Klan, he’s psychologically unable to pass. He has these moments where he’s overwhelmed by his true alien identity. And what overwhelms him is memory.
GLY: That’s right, yeah.
BLVR: Going back to the question of moral complexity: I found the horror of Boxers and Saints, the constant war and death of that period of history, so surprising in a story for young readers. Have you thought about what it means to write for children, what you can or shouldn’t show them, and how to engage with darkness and death?
GLY: There are definitely some really dark children’s stories and fairy tales out there. My understanding is that, for example, the Snow White we know in America is not the original Snow White—the original was much darker, with lots of pain and torture. To be honest, especially with Boxers and Saints and with American Born Chinese, I wasn’t totally thinking about age demographics. Age demographics, historically, have not been very important in comics. When I was a kid, in the comic book store, there might have been a kids’ section with some Uncle Scrooge and stuff. And there was an adult section, which meant adult adult. But the vast majority of stuff was in this middle section. And in there you’d have Spider-Man, all the versions of Spider-Man. And then Peter Bagge’s Hate would be there; sometimes Love and Rockets. It would all just be in this big mass in the middle
So I wasn’t really aware of age demographics until I signed with First Second. They categorized me as YA, and I think that fits pretty well. My series Secret Coders and my most recent series, Books of Clash, are specifically for middle-grade. But for Boxers and Saints specifically, the violence was a response to what I was reading, what I was finding in my research. It just seemed so bloody. I went to visit a Jesuit archive in France, where they had all these black-and-white photos from turn-of-the-century China. They had photos of beheadings where the head would actually be halfway between the ground and the body. And if you think about camera technology back then, somebody really wanted that shot in order to get it. That says something about people’s mentality back then.
BLVR: They were relishing the violence?
GLY: They must have been. Why else would you choose to do that? If you just wanted evidence that the beheading happened, why wouldn’t you snap the shot after the beheading was over? You had to purposely want the head in midair.
BLVR: Boxers and Saints must have required spending a lot of time in a pretty bloody world. How long did that take you?
GLY: About five or six years.
BLVR: I’ve heard you say that you wrote two books because you didn’t know who the good guys were in the Boxer Rebellion, so you had to write both sides of the story. Did your sympathies coalesce to one side or the other by the end?
GLY: I don’t think they coalesced. I didn’t want to write two books. But I couldn’t decide who the hero was. And I don’t think I’ve landed on an answer. That’s definitely a conflict. I feel very sympathetic to both sides.
BLVR: Did readers come to you with their own conclusions about their sympathies?
GLY: Oh, absolutely. Within religious circles, people are more sympathetic to the Christians. But I think the majority of everybody else is more sympathetic to the Boxers.
BLVR: My own reading of that conflict is that on the one hand, these colonialist characters bring a very racist perspective, and yet they also bring something that gives the Vibiana character, the Christian convert, a real way out of a lot of hardship and suffering. How would you characterize your own reckoning with Christianity and colonialism?
GLY: I grew up in a Chinese Catholic church, and when I was a kid, it seemed like Chinese culture and this Western Catholicism just kind of went hand in hand. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that’s not really the case historically, or even in the present day. The history of Christianity is really, really complex. The central figure, to my mind, is very sympathetic. But the ways in which those stories have been lived out have often been pretty heinous. In a lot of ways, the way I feel about the Catholic Church as a Chinese American mirrors the way I feel about America as a Chinese American, which kind of mirrors the way I feel about humanity in general.
BLVR: Can you say more about that? What is the mirroring?
GLY: For both Catholicism and Americanism, there is a core that I think is good. And there’s a core that has formed so much of me that it’s difficult for me to separate myself from it. It’s difficult for me to separate myself as a human being from my Catholic upbringing, or from being an American. And in a minor way, it also reflects the way I feel about the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe. I love the DC Universe. I grew up with those characters. But you could argue that the DC Universe began with Detective Comics no. 1, which is rife with these really intense yellow-peril figures. So the foundation of these stories that I love, that I grew up with and that formed my conscience and my consciousness—they’re rooted in something that’s very anti-me.
BLVR: That’s a really well-articulated conflict. Not to get too cheesy, but you said there’s something at the core of America that’s good. And there’s something at the core
of Catholicism that’s good. I imagine those two things may be different. But what is “the good” for you?
GLY: For Catholicism, it’s this idea that you are your truest self by participating in self-donating love. And for America… this is also very cheesy…
BLVR: It’s great. I love it.
GLY: For America… OK, obviously, there are untold buckets of blood in American history. But the core idea is that a group of people can be bound by a set of ideals rather than by blood and soil. I think that’s a really beautiful idea.
BLVR: Do you think we’re making progress? On the Asian American stories front, Asian American comics are becoming TV shows and films, and Asian American films are winning Oscars. How authentically does that feel like progress to you?
GLY: I think it’s K-shaped. I think we’re both making progress and falling behind. The stories we tell do influence our culture and the way we think about each other. So the fact that there are Asian American stories on the streamers does reflect an acceptance of us as a community. But then you read about the violence that’s perpetuated against us, and especially our elders, and that feels like a falling backward. And the division between different communities in America feels more stark than it used to.
BLVR: It’s hard to know how to connect those upper and lower legs of the K.
GLY: To your point about Oscar winners, in American Born Chinese, Ke Huy Quan plays the character that stands in for cousin Chin-Kee, and we cast him very intentionally. Ke was Short Round in Indiana Jones. He was Data in Goonies. And then he had a couple of decades in the wilderness, where he would get offered these really terrible, stereotypical Asian roles, and eventually he left Hollywood because of that. Then he comes back and wins an Oscar. I think that really does show the upper part of that K.
BLVR: People are eager to tell the story of how we used to be racist and now we’re not.
GLY: I think that’s all of us. All of us want to tell that story.